canterbury tales

The Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola (part 1)

Both Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare dedicated a large portion of their respective bodies of work to stories about marriage and examinations of marriage through those stories. In addition, these two great authors of the English language both evince a tendency to focus upon similar questions surrounding marriage, such as the origins and nature of romantic love, the consequences of spousal unfaithfulness, and the roles of husbands and wives in relation to each other.[1] There are many possibilities for the origins of this similarity of interests between Chaucer and Shakespeare. Marriage and all of its facets, including male-female relations, ἔρως, childbearing, and childrearing, are, after all, ubiquitous aspects of the human condition and always of immediate interest in any historical moment.

In spite of Chaucer’s frequent identification as a “medieval” poet and Shakespeare’s popular designation as a “Renaissance,” or, more recently, “early modern,” poet, it is also not to be overlooked that, as John Spiers writes, “The community that discovers itself in Chaucer is already recognizably the English community of Shakespeare.”[2] The implications and assumptions engendered by the identification of each with his particular historical era aside, the two are separated by only 200 years, a substantial but not exceptionally large amount of time. “If [Shakespeare and his contemporaries] are moderns, Chaucer also is a modern,” continues Spiers,” if Chaucer is mediaeval, they also are mediaeval.”[3] Ultimately, Spiers concludes, “Shakespeare’s English is the complex fulfilment of, or development from, Chaucer’s.”[4] This is true not only of the language itself, but also of the ideas conveyed through that language as well as the style in which they are conveyed.

The influence, direct and indirect, of Chaucer upon Shakespeare is evident in the latter’s treatment of marriage in comparison with that of the former. It is well-established that Shakespeare drew upon Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and other works by Chaucer for the subject matter of his plays. “The Knight’s Tale,” for example, says Helen Cooper, “influenced two earlier plays of Shakespeare’s, Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night’s Dream,”[5] two plays written around the same time as the writing of the Taming of the Shrew.[6] Shakespeare, in addition, continued to draw on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales throughout his career. “A further possible area of influence from the Tales on Shakespeare emerges in the last plays,” continues Cooper.[7] “The theme of women’s endurance of undeserved suffering in Henry VIII, The Winter’s Tale, and Pericles may owe something to the Clerk’s and Man of Law’s Tales.”[8] Given that Shakespeare drew upon at least one of the members of Chaucer’s Marriage Group of Tales for his depictions of suffering women and that he was writing plays influenced by Chaucer at nearly the same time that he was writing the Taming of the Shrew, the similarities between Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and Shakespeare’s Katherine Minola seem unlikely to be merely coincidental. Instead, the character of Katherine Minola and the story of her “taming” present another case of Shakespeare’s borrowings from Chaucer.

[1] For example, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde examines the origins of romantic love as well as the consequences of unfaithfulness. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is an examination of the origins of romantic love with a substantial amount of content that is fascinatingly similar to the story of Troilus and Criseyde, of which Shakespeare wrote his own version in the play Troilus and Cressida.

[2] John Spiers, Chaucer the Maker (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 15.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Helen Cooper, Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 422.

[6] Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, eds., William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 109, 118. Wells and Taylor date Two Gentlemen of Verona to 1590–1591, A Midsummer Night’s Dream to 1595, and The Taming of the Shrew to 1590–1591, placing all of the plays within four to five years of each other and making Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew coeval.

[7] Cooper, 422.

[8] Ibid.

Chaucer and the inner world of man

The literature of the ancient world, including Mesopotamian works like the Epic of Gilgamesh, Greek works such as the epics of Homer, and the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid, while written about certain great individuals, demonstrate a general lack of interest in the inner life of the individual and of any concern for anything but the greatest of persons. In all three of these outstanding and demonstrative examples, the thoughts and motivations of the heroes are left largely unexplored and the very existence of anyone outside of their ruling warrior class almost entirely ignored. Perhaps most importantly, there is little recognition of the power of the individual to affect his own fate or the circumstances of the world into which he has been placed; rather, even the greatest of individuals is subject entirely to powers beyond their comprehension or control.

In contrast, in the literature of the Middle Ages, there is a trajectory which begins perhaps with Augustine’s monumental autobiography The Confessions and culminates in the works of William Shakespeare. The literature of the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance exhibit a more intense and probing interest in the individual than the literature of any previous age, as well one of the fullest recognitions of the power of the individual to shape his own fate and of the value of the perspective of formerly marginalized classes and categories of individuals. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are one of the finest examples of this new awareness of the presence and power of the person.

The Wife of Bath, for example, arguably the most fully developed character in the work, is granted an extended self-examination in her prologue that is nearly twice the length of her tale, which itself is also autobiographical in its moral. In the prologue to her tale, she confesses to her many marriages and engages in an extended self-justification through rather tortuous interpretations of biblical stories and injunctions in an attempt to avoid the cognitive dissonance which might otherwise result from the juxtaposition of her thoroughly medieval piety and her thoroughly human libido. Whereas she, if for no other reason than her sex, might have been a peripheral and easily dismissed character in any ancient work, the treatment of the Wife of Bath by Chaucer is thorough, empathic, and characterized by a refusal to rely on trite cliches and stereotypes. What emerges is a living character far different from anything in previous literature.

The Pardoner, another character in the Canterbury Tales, is a similarly exhibitive example of Chaucer’s ability to enter into and speak on behalf of a variety of subjectivities. While Chaucer’s treatment of the Pardoner is less empathic than is his treatment of the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner is nonetheless granted the opportunity to divulge his innermost thoughts and underlying motivations. His tale, the moral of which is to avoid avarice, the vice which the Pardoner himself is most guilty of, is autobiographical in its demonstration of his hypocrisy. Like the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner becomes a living character with all of the hidden desires, self-justifications, and flaws of an actual person.